|David and Goliath: MLB Edition|
Before the 2011 season even started, everyone knew the AL and NL East was already decided. The Yankees or Red Sox would take the division title (with the "loser" grabbing a Wild Card spot) and the only question in the National League East was how early into the season the Phillies clinched. The Central and West divisions in both leagues are fairly open and each has two or three teams, "equal" in ability, fighting for the spot atop their respective division. Teams like Baltimore, Toronto, and Atlanta would seeminly thrive if they could get out of the East, although the Phillies dyntasy is only a recent creation, the Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the AL East (with minimal distractions from the Rays) for three decades. If you combine the rosters of New York (Yankees), Boston, and Philly you pretty much have 2 full All-Star teams, including pitching staffs and bullpen. Sadly (as a die hard Yankee fan), I think these 3 teams are going to be making some noise the next couple seasons; and we could even see a newly crowned divison leader sooner rather than later.
Baltimore, the worst team (record-wise) in the American League, has a lot more talent than their record reveals. Buck Showalter took over this team last season and really seemed to influence the chemistry in the locker room and raise the team morale, but that rejuvination seemed to desipate as the wear-and-tear of the 2011 season began to surface. There has been a tougher division, past or present, than the AL East since the turn of the milenium, dominated by the high salary caps' of Boston and New York. The Orioles have a ridiculously good young hitting core though. Matt Weiters was an All-Star this year behind the plate and may finally begin to show signs that he can live up to all the hype that surrounded him as a top prospect. The team has a good model in place, as they are building the roster up the middle (Catcher- Middle Infield-CF). A few weeks ago, on July 18th, Baltimore locked up J.J Hardy to a 3 year extension (worth $22.5 million) and back in 2009 the front office was able to also extend Brian Robert's contract (4 years, $40 million). Although the team recently shifted Roberts to the 60-day DL, he still started of 2011 with a hot bat and great speed. Hopefully the second baseman can finally rid himself of this injury bug and return to his All-Star form. With Hardy at short and Roberts at second the middle infield will be one of the best up and coming duos in the entire league, a tandum with great speed, range on defense, and rare power for their respective positions. The last piece is in center field, Adam Jones (who came over from Seattle back in 08 during the Erik Bedard trade), is arbitration eligible in 2012-2013. Right now he is only making $3.5 million and that number will surely go up if he hits the open market, so it's important for Baltimore to keep him happy and willing to commit to staying with the Orioles. Jones has the ability to bat in the leadoff spot or also be a threat in the middle of the lineup; I think the Orioles, with their young core, are going to go with a speed over power mentality, meaning Hardy/Roberts will bat 1 and 2 (in either order) with Jones 3rd. I like moving Mark Reynolds to first base and due to his high strike out rate I would bat him 6th, a postion where RBIs will be plentiful but the K's wil be less costly. The young stud Matt Weiters can hold down the 5th spot, taking pressure off Reynolds and racking up the RBIs. Nick Markakis, the teams best hitter and sole veteran, should bat clean up and can have a MVP-type season if the top of the order stays healthy and matures. Felix Pie may not be in the team's plans long term but with Luke Scott on the DL I think they should start Pie in the "Brett Gardner role" (a true CF bringing his speed and skill set to LF, and batting 9th as a "second lead off man"). Pie 9th will be a tough out and if he can work out his personal issues and cool down the attitue maybe the Orioles can commit to him for the future. All that is left in terms of batting is the 7 and 8 hole (manned by the team's DH and 3B). I would let the young Blake Davis try and hold his own at 3rd, even though he's a short stop and move Nate Reimold to a platoon at DH until Vlad is a free agent in 2012. Unless the team finds a very attractive trade offer or free agent, this looks like the future batting order; rotate around Pie (LF/DH), Reimold (LF/DH), Reynolds (1B, DH, 3B), and Blake Davis (3B) to find a combination that works and allows eahc guy to mature into his own role. With the trade of Derrek Lee ($7.25 million) and expiring contracts of Vladimir Guerrero ($8 million) and Luke Scott ($6.4 million); the Orioles will have a combined $22 million off the books just from those 3 guys, enough to go out and spend on a veteran bat to be everyday guy at LF or 3B. In terms of the pitching staff: Mike Gonzalez ($6 million) and Jeremy Guthrie ($5.75 million) are the two biggest names off the book (adding $12 million the $22 million previously noted, totaling $34 million of cap space from 5 "dispensile" free agents to-be). Potential FA targets at SP include: Brandon Webb, Chris Young, Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia, Javier Vazquez, Jon Garland, Aaron Harang, Rich Harden, Scott Kazmir, Oliver Perez, Brad Penny, and even Roy Oswalt. For a complete list of all 2012 free agents, click here: MLB Contracts. If they can snag one or two veteran pitchers on the cheaper end that could really improve this roster until their pitching prosects develop. Zach Britton can be a solid middle of the rotation guy, and they should look to re-sign their "ace" Jeremy Guthrie. Combining this with the potential signings of Hideki Matsui at DH, Ryan Ludwick or Raul Ibanez in LF, and Eric Chavez or Aramis Ramirez at 3B would really firm up their chances of knocking off the mighty Yankees and Red Sox.